We’re now entering year eight of the College Football Playoff era. Every year, at least one Power Five conference champion gets left out of the fun. Every year, there seems to be controversy. And every year, we once again wonder about when — not if — the Playoff will expand, and what said expansion might look like.
The format of the Playoff is expected to remain stagnant through 2022 at least, but things could shift soon after that. While expansion talks have been simmering since the Playoff was first introduced, they became especially prominent since April when Bill Hancock, executive director of the CFP, left the idea of expanding to six or even 16 teams open.
But why might the Playoff system need expansion, one might ask? After all, the system has been around for less than a decade and yet has managed to successfully crown the consensus best team in the nation on most occasions.
Well, most importantly, there’s the fact that the math has never worked. As we’ve discussed numerous times previously, four playoff spots for five conference champions and several at-large teams is an impossible puzzle. Someone will be left out, and it will be someone for whom not a lot of data exists when it comes to inter-conference play. As a result, we don’t know for certain if the conference that is left out is actually more competitive than the rest of the bunch, or if that at-large team could have made a real run at a title (cough, UCF).
One of the things that makes the NCAA Basketball Tournaments so great is the fact that every possible champion is in the tournament — something that is, in theory, not feasible in the realm of college football given the nature of the sport.
Additionally, there is much less parity in college football than in college basketball — hence why there have been only 11 teams that have ever made the Playoff in the first place. So, it would seem that the CFP would not have to be 68 teams in order to achieve the same result. In reality, the best team in the country could be found probably in the top-three of the CFP rankings, more likely in the top-five and almost assuredly in the top-10.
However, we do, in fact, have a college football comparison, all the way from the FCS! In normal times, the bracket features 24 teams with 10 conference champions and 14 at-large bids. This year, the bracket shrank to 16 teams. The playoff lasts five rounds and takes about a month and a half to complete, mainly over the holidays and into January. Sound similar to the current Bowl Season in the FBS?
On that note, back to the FBS. By comparison, the new system is certainly better than the BCS era, when an odd mix of objective computer factors couldn’t seem to find the best two teams without controversy year in and year out. How many times did three teams battle over two spots? And yet somehow, we haven’t managed to escape the odd-man-out scenario that plagued the BCS system for so many years.
Let’s take a look on a conference-by-conference basis:
- The Pac-12 champion has been left out of the CFP in five of seven Playoff iterations, having sent Washington and Oregon just once apiece.
- The ACC has seen just two teams — Florida State and Clemson — make the Playoff. And maybe Notre Dame (lol).
- The Big Ten similarly has seen just two teams (Ohio State and Michigan State) make the CFP a total of five times, with four of those bids going to Ohio State.
- Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team to have made the CFP, with the Sooners earning a bid four separate times.
- As it turns out, the SEC has had the most different teams in the Playoff, with Alabama, Georgia and LSU making it to the CFP.
As seen above, the same teams from each conference are Playoff regulars, which means the same teams have an opportunity to stay on top in their respective conferences.
That factor has an impact on recruiting, because top recruits are out to win championships, and the only way to do that is playing in the Playoff. Sure, New Year’s Six bowls are great (yes, the Rose Bowl game is an amazing consolation prize for a Big Ten team left out of the Playoff), but there’s a reason the core set of teams that have made the group of four with great regularity have seemed to be elevated above the rest of college football. Heck, before the Playoff, it seemed plausible that Michigan could beat Ohio State!
Despite increasing the teams actively competing in the postseason for a championship, having a four-team playoff rather than a two-team championship managed to decrease parity (though there are certainly other factors at play). In the CFP era, we’ve seen four champions in seven years. In contrast, there were 11 different national champions in 16 years under the BCS system.
The solution, while counterintuitive, would be to grow the playoff field to a point where more teams are present less frequently (e.g., an eight-team field where three of the teams are relative constants), rather than the norm being fewer teams there all the time (i.e., a four-team field where three of the teams are always Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State).
Another oddity of the current playoff format is that, despite a limit to just the top-four teams, the semi-final games have actually not been competitive, with an average margin of victory of 21.3 points.
What would that mean for bringing on even lower-seeded teams with a larger playoff? Well, like the NCAA Tournament, it would probably mean similarly non-competitive opening round games among the top-and-bottom seeds, with more evenly matched teams being selected for throughout the bracket. On the flip side, it would mean more opportunity for upsets, with less time for higher seeds to prepare for scrappier, lower-seeded teams.
What factors would contribute to an expanded playoff? There is, of course, the committee itself, made up of 13 members serving three-year terms. There’s also the conference commissioners. While Jim Philips, the new ACC commissioner, has said he doesn’t want to rush into expansion, the Pac-12’s new front man, George Kliavkoff, wasn’t shy about advocating for it — which makes sense given how much his conference’s teams have been left out.
As we look ahead, what would that ideal playoff situation look like? One more round - or even just the addition of two play-in games. At least then one could accommodate for all conference champs plus one at-large (preferably not Notre Dame).
But hey, I’m an Ohio State fan. What do I have to complain about now?